Long Island teacher flips right-wing stronghold
Christine Pellegrino celebrates with supporters after winning the New York State 9th Assembly District seat. | Emmanuel Decaudin.

In a special election of state and national significance, on Tuesday, May 23rd, Long Island public school teacher Christine Pellegrino became the first Democratic Party Assemblyperson to defeat a Republican in the history of the 9th Assembly District. Part of a wave of Bernie Sanders delegates and activists who have recently been inspired to run for office, Pellegrino beat Republican Thomas Gargiulo 58 – 42, just months after Trump beat Clinton by 23 percent in the same district.

Gargiulo is also an official of the Conservative Party. Although he sought to downplay it during the campaign, he is pro-Trump, favors so-called right to work legislation in New York State, is opposed to making abortion safe and legal, is anti-marriage equality, and denies climate change science.

An elementary school teacher for 25 years, and activist in her New York State United Teachers union, Pellegrino had never run for office before. She continued to work as a teacher during her campaign.

Success was achieved by the building of a broad coalition, particularly among labor, women and education advocates. Unions that endorsed were United Automobile Workers, Communication Workers of America, 1199 SEIU, New York State Nurses Association, New York State United Teachers and the New York State AFL-CIO. Pellegrino was also supported by organizations such as New York Progressive Action Network, of which she is a cofounder. Hundreds of trade unionists worked phone banks, attended rallies and participated in “labor walks,” going door to door to speak to fellow workers about the Pellegrino campaign.

In contrast to support given by the labor movement and community activists, support by the county Democratic Party Committee was limited, reflecting divisions within its leadership. Initially reluctant to back a Bernie delegate, it was only when Working Families Party offered her its ballot line that Pellegrino was belatedly accepted as the official Democratic Party candidate. When promised financial support for a campaign mailing was not forthcoming in the last week of the campaign, labor and NYPAN activists raised $20,000, much of it from small contributions, within 24 hours. The mailing went out.

The election was regarded by many as an election of potentially national significance. With a people’s program and attention to grassroots organizing, the campaign was a challenge both to entrenched Republican rule, and corporate influences within Democratic Party national, state, and county committees.

The district, made up of a swath of suburban towns in Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, is the kind of area that progressive advocates say must be wrested from Republican control in the 2018 elections, if the U.S. Senate and House are to be flipped, the Trump agenda stopped, and a new progressive agenda fought for.

“This sends a strong message to Democrats and Republicans,” said Bill Lipton, the director of the New York Working Families Party, whose support was instrumental in launching the Pellegrino candidacy. “To Democrats, it says that they can win in Trump country” by boldly supporting “champions who put working people’s issues front and center.”

“To Republicans,” he continued, “it says Donald Trump is a huge ball and chain around their necks at this moment as more working people see the federal government trying to take away their health care and their rights. The progressive base is fired up.”

Nomiki Konst of Our Revolution said the election showed a “progressive message … can win in even the most entrenched Republican districts.”

Although the campaign mostly revolved around local issues – Common Core curriculum and standardized testing in the schools, full funding for schools and local services from Albany, protection of water from chemicals in nearby wells, corruption and ethics reform in Albany – the presence of Trump hung like a cloud over the campaign.

A month earlier, Republican Congressman Peter King refused to hold town hall meetings. Many of his fellow Republican Congressmembers did the same, fearing the outrage of Suffolk and Nassau County residents, tens of thousands of whom are estimated to lose coverage if Trumpcare becomes law.

Trump’s removal of EPA restrictions means lack of accountability for the corporations responsible for the carcinogenic chemicals recently found in many Long Island wells and streams. Trumpcare would not cover rehab programs for those afflicted by Long Island’s opioid and heroin epidemic. Trump’s plan would cut taxes for the rich, but falls heavily on Long Island working class homeowners and mortgage holders, and would fuel further inequality.

In addition to national implications, the victory will also have an impact on New York State politics, where activists eagerly look to flip the Republican dominated, pro-Trump State Senate in 2018. The 9th AD is part of the larger State Senatorial District, and activists believe, given the results here, that seat can now be flipped, as well.

No IDC

The election is also sure to exert pressure on the so-called Independent Democratic Conference, a grouping of New York State senators who were elected as Democrats but who in recent years have caucused with the Republican majority in Albany.

Activists say their alignment with the pro-Trump Republican majority, far from enabling them to be more effective, only serves to empower the Republicans, and prevent passage of Medicare For All, the Dream Act, genuinely free college tuition at public colleges, and campaign finance and voting rights reform.

Activist groups like Working Families Party, No IDC and Rise and Resist have recently organized a series of demonstrations at IDC member’s offices, demanding unity, and an end to caucusing with the Republicans.

In a recognition of the growing urgency, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, also made calls this week for the State Senate Democrats and the nine breakaway IDC member to unify.

“Americans are seeing threats to their health care, fair wages and access to the ballot box,” Ellison said. “If this assault is going to be stopped, then Democrats must come together and fight for working people together. That’s why I am willing to do whatever might be helpful to bring together a Democratic majority in the New York State Senate.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Chris Butters
Chris Butters

Chris Butters is a retired NYC court reporter, and a former DC 37 (AFSCME) chapter officer. Chris is a co-producer of WBAI-FM' (Pacifica)'s Arts Express radio show. He has published two books and four chapbooks. His poetry has appeared in Blue Collar Review, and many other literary and left poetry magazines.

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